Fourth of five parts
Barge life on the Congo River has a rhythm of its own on the long stretches of brown, soupy water. There is trading along the river, bathing, and frequent security and immigration checkpoints.
Traveling in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, many people have no option but to use the nearly 3,000-mile-long river. It is the cheapest way to transport passengers and cargo to and from the hinterland.
A recent river journey from Mbandaka -- 500 miles upstream from Kinshasa -- to a final stop of Maluku Port, the gateway to the capital, was scheduled to take three days. It ended up taking seven.
Onboard the vessel M/B SETB, the day starts well before dawn. Privacy is almost impossible on a barge carrying more than 300 people and a menagerie of animals. You need to be up before sunrise, under cover of darkness, to make use of the bathing and toilet facilities, which are out in the open, at the back of the tugboat.
Lines form early -- women to the right, men to the left -- with buckets, soap and towels. Pity the soul who fails to hold on tight to something and it falls into the debris-filled Congo River, a giant trash can.
Once open-air ablutions are over and the sun is out, brisk trade gets under way along one of the world's longest waterways. The goods that flow up and down the river make it a lifeline for the nation.
Business Day Begins
Each morning, the captain revs up the engines and casts off from wherever the barge moored overnight. As it moves, villagers using poles furiously propel their long, wooden dugout canoes toward the vessel, and glide up to the sides of the barge.
That's when the barge becomes a floating supermarket.
Women, men and children from riverside communities produce fresh fish and provisions to sell to the barge residents.
The village traders board the barge and expertly weave in and out of the crowded maze of people and animals onboard, from one end of the tugboat and barge to the other. They carry baskets full of ingredients for breakfast, lunch and supper: freshly baked bread, freshly caught Congo River fish, golden pineapples and other fruit, vegetables and staple foods.
Competition is fierce between the vendors. One determined river trader, Papi Ngapel, is selling shikwang -- the local staple, cassava root -- pounded into a gelatinous brick and wrapped in leaves to keep it fresh.
He shouts out: "Buy mine, buy mine, I need to sell quickly!"
"Why yours?" asks a potential customer, who has a choice from several other vendors.
"Because my cassava is soft, fresh and hot," he replies. "It's the best -- go on, taste it!"
Often commerce turns into barter -- a give and take between the villagers and passengers. The residents from river villages provide people on the barge with provisions, fresh food supplies and charcoal for cooking. Traders on the vessel offer items that the villagers in Congo's isolated hinterland have no access to: essentials such as sugar, salt, matches, flashlights and battery-operated electrical goods, as well as used clothing and shoes.
Dodging Hazards On The Water
Security and immigration checkpoints are another daily ritual. Security along the Congo River has been tightened in recent months because of rebel unrest upstream.
Barge passengers travel by dugout to get to shore, where travel documents are checked, in compliance with new regulations. Leaving the barge, travelers take the opportunity to bathe in the Congo's brown waters to relax and cool down.
But a greater hazard than the threat of attack on the river is the threat of submerged sandbanks.
From the bridge, the captain, Savane Mboso-Naka, is on alert to avoid getting stuck on the sand.
Mboso-Naka says he has years of experience navigating the Congo River. But he and the crew still need special navigators called eclaireurs, or "scouts." These experienced pilots plunge poles deep into the water to help keep the barge on course and avoid running aground and capsizing.
From their posts at the front of the vessel, the eclaireurs gesticulate back to the bridge, indicating the depth of the river and alerting the captain and crew to any possible problems.
In July, an overloaded barge snagged a sandbank and capsized, killing as many as 100 people.
Congo's information minister, Lambert Mende Omalanga, says low water levels in the dry season are among the risk factors. But Mende Omalanga added that often vessels are not in river-worthy condition.
Congo's government has been criticized for failing to pay enough attention to the state of traffic on the river in a country with few drivable roads outside the major cities and towns. Decades of conflict and neglect have left the infrastructure a mess.
However, the government minister insists the Congo River's importance remains undiminished.
"We think that we are blessed by God with this river and we must really ... [care] for this river so that our kids, the kids of our kids can continue benefiting from the river, as we did," he tells NPR.
Few Alternatives To Barge Travel
Barge travelers can spend hours on the Congo River without passing another vessel other than the ubiquitous dugout canoes that ply the river. Passengers stand up and wave excitedly whenever another barge comes into sight. Some vessels, like the M/B SETB, carry many passengers and cargo, while others transport timber in a long convoy like lumberjacks on water.
There are grumblings of envy whenever a vessel from the other Congo -- the smaller, neighboring Republic of Congo -- passes by. The Congo River runs between the two countries and separates the twin capitals, Kinshasa and Brazzaville.
Passengers jab their fingers in the direction of the neater, better-maintained boats and barges, pointing to electricity in the towns on the Congo-Brazzaville side of the river and lamenting that their Congo is woefully underdeveloped and unable to provide them with either a reliable power supply or running water.
On the river, despite the accidents, long and frustrating travel delays and frequent technical breakdowns, tens of thousands of Congolese have little choice but to rely on the waterway and the country's fleet of outdated crafts for long-distance travel.
They transfer their daily lives to the barge -- cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, quarrelling and talking politics, jobs, life and love in their cramped quarters on board.
Once the sun sets and the buzz of mosquitoes replaces the cacophony of human voices, children begin falling asleep, enclosed under voluminous white mosquito nets.
The adults follow. Some barge dwellers have little protection against the elements or the mosquitoes as they turn in for the night, ending another day on the Congo River.
Up next: Reaching the capital, Kinshasa